Designing a MedTech device users can and want to use

13 Jul 2023 8min read

Unlike creators of consumer products, medical device designers must work within strict regulatory boundaries, ensuring the devices they create are both safe and effective to use. Achieving this requires a deep understanding of your target users and their behaviours, the pain points in their user journey and the environment of device use. It requires effective industrial design, basing decisions on evidence (gained through a robust human factors engineering program) and the integration of behavioural science techniques, user experience design and more.

The primary aim of user-centred design is to create a product that is easy to use and intuitive, but which also meets people’s practical, emotional, lifestyle and/or working needs. Human factors engineering has become an essential part of the design process for medical devices and will help drive your product towards meeting regulatory requirements. However, as designers and human factors specialists, we must strive to go beyond this, to design a product that people both can and want to use. Achieving this balance is often the difference between a usable product and a commercial success.

Front end innovation and understanding your user

In a separate blog on front end innovation, we discuss what’s involved in the early stages of your development, from your initial market research through to your first tangible prototypes and concepts. It can be tempting to view the design of your product as a linear path from here – you have done your research and created your concepts, now it is time to refine these designs and start engineering your solution. In reality, the design process is much more iterative and flexible.

While front end innovation activities help to set strategic direction and provide a valuable starting point for your development, it is essential to continue to build knowledge about your users and the challenges they face throughout the development process. After all, the pros and cons of a solution are often not truly clear until you have something tangible to discuss – people find it much easier to articulate their thoughts or compare experiences when they have something ‘real’ in their hands. Careful observation of a user’s interaction with a device reveals where the interface is intuitive, and where difficulties or errors may occur.

user interaction

Applying design thinking to your MedTech device

A user-centred design process is about understanding the depth of your users’ challenges and seeking to solve them through a broad exploration of whatever medium is available. The aim is to continuously learn more about your users as you attempt to address these different challenges and requirements, an iterative process of understanding, ideation, prototyping and testing, known as design thinking.

This cycle of user feedback is often what leads to the most beneficial design features of a medical product, based on real insights and context of use.

To help visualise this, consider a design challenge such as the need to keep the various components of your system physically together. Your design team creates a storage pack concept and makes this into a prototype, which you can then put into the hands of users for feedback. Your researchers discover it is great for daily use in the home, but you get feedback the system is too bulky or cumbersome for use whilst travelling. In doing so, you have just identified a new design challenge to address, which will involve another round of design iteration.

design iteration

As mentioned, we often notice that users find it easier to verbalise their needs and ideas when they can actually see and touch a solution. This is especially so for novel MedTech devices, where you are breaking new ground and may not have predicates to compare to. It is often not until you have created a prototype that users respond to and experiment with, that you can gain valuable feedback about the design, such as the ergonomics and how it would realistically be used.

Sometimes, user feedback can highlight even seemingly simple design flaws that can make a significant impact on usability. For example, during the development of an all-in-one hearing health assessment system, it was not until putting a prototype into the hands of users that the design team discovered it was not suitable for left-handed users. Following user testing and feedback from clinical studies however, it was quickly recognised that adding an adjustable angle feature to the handle would help to improve usability and ergonomics, allowing the device to be held more comfortably for longer periods of time by both left and right-handed users.

Of course, there is a limit on how long you can continue iterating and evolving your design. A good designer will always strive for perfection however, it is equally important to ensure you are meeting as wide a breadth of user needs as possible while minimising risk, and that you understand where compromise is needed. As with any product development, once the device is released and distributed you will inevitably identify further needs and opportunities to improve.

How to know if your medical device design works

When designing a product, we are seeking to address a complex mix of user, technical and commercial requirements. While we can assess safe and effective use through human factors testing and technical performance through device testing, the overall quality of design is harder to measure, as each ‘customer’ will be judging it on their own personal criteria and expectations.

Ultimately,  the success of your medical device design will be proven in how well it performs on the market. However, by applying user feedback, leading design principles and good design intuition throughout your medical device development, we can gain a strong idea of how your product will resonate with your intended users. In addition to this, qualitative research aimed at eliciting user attitudes, perceptions and preferences across brand language embodiments, can also be used to help you ensure your design fully supports your brand.

Designing for your brand

As a MedTech start-up, you may be thinking all that matters is getting your first minimal viable product to market as quickly as possible, to secure future investment and start making some returns while you work on a second generation. It’s important, however, to keep in mind your wider brand and the impression that your initial product will leave. Often, your product is the first physical touch point that people will encounter when they interact with your brand. It might also be your first in a long line of planned products, meaning it is important that it leaves the right impression.

For example, do you want to appear bespoke and high quality? Or would you prefer to seem cost-effective and sustainable? These are key questions to ask when designing your wider product ecosystem, from your packaging and instructions for use (IFU), to key user steps such as the unboxing experience.

The aim across each of these design touchpoints is to provide a consistent user experience. Much like the successful consumer products we all use on a daily basis, how you present your product can go a long way towards encouraging a positive perception. A variety of factors can impact this perception, ranging from tactility to aesthetics. You should aim to consciously understand what elements, features, and material choices will elicit a positive response in your users, which can then be captured in your visual brand language specification. This not only creates an appealing product offering, it can also be used to guide the design of any subsequent products, helping them to appear as part of a wider product family.


Crafting a MedTech device that users want to use

The path to a successful product is rarely a linear one. For any device to be truly user-centred, it must go through dozens of iterations of prototyping, user testing, and redesign. By applying effective design thinking, human factors engineering, and leading design principles, we can craft a product that not only performs technically, but that your users both can and want to use.

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